Davenport Railway Station

This article, recently found among my archives, appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1992.

I thought it might amuse readers, especially since it features a local Stockport personality. - Charlie

Form more about the house mentioned in the article, in Buttercup Drive, Adswood, which is still a locomotive shrine, see (for example)  The Independent of 15 July 1992

U.K. 'Spotters' Find Paradise in Logging Trains at Trackside

Hobbyists, Who Spend Years Checking Off Lists, Insist They're Not Off the Rails.

By TONY HORWlTZ, Staff Reporter

LONDON - Some leap from airplanes. Others scale icy peaks. Dave Gander awaits the 8:38 from Dorking. "It's the thrill of the unexpected," he says, peering through binoculars as the train approaches Clapham Junction.

Six commuters from Dorking disembark, Mr. Gander and two dozen other bystanders, strung along the platform, jot down the number on the locomotive. Mr, Gander checks a dog-eared train directory and shakes his head. "Seen it already," he says. Another train pulls in, the 9:20 from Waterloo. "Oh my God - it's a class 159!" someone shouts. The crowd surges forward. To the untrained eye, the sleek, modern machine is indistinguishable from dozens of others that have passed during the morning rush hour.

"Never seen that one."
"Must be a test model."
"Whippee!" The train departs. Mr. Gander lights a cigarette and exhales languorously. "That was a good one," he says, gazing at the number newly scribbled in his notebook.

Mr. Gander, a car mechanic by trade, is "train spotting," a pastime that London's Evening Standard calls "the world's dullest hobby." The spotter's mission: to glimpse and log every machine listed in texts such as "Locomotive Stock Book." Recording them all is called "clearing the book." It can take years. There are no prizes at the end - just a fresh book of numbers to start crossing out again.

"It's a lifetime job and a full.time job if you're dedicated," says Graham Chapman, a factory worker, unfurling a spyglass to spot a coal train. "You can't say that about many occupations anymore."

Most train spotters are middle-aged men who took up the hobby as boys, when 20,000 steam engines still growled and belched across Britain. Today, the few thousand locomotives remaining are staid machines, powered by electricity and diesel. Some spotters now log planes or buses instead. Others spot mailboxes, which in Britain are numbered and decorated with royal seals.

But true spotters stay loyal to trains. "I tried butterflies once," confesses Mel Thorley, a lifetime spotter. "But they didn't have numbers. I'd see a Red Admiral. and then another, and I couldn't tell if it was one I'd seen already."

Mr. Thorley is a train engineer in Britain's industrial Midlands, the unscenic heartland of train spotting. For years, he drove trains past the field near Manchester where he spotted as a boy. When a developer built houses there recently, Mr.Thorley and a few friends bought one. All but one of its windows face the tracks. Trains pass so close that dishes rattle.

"Paradise," Mr. Thorley says, settling in after work to spot the trains he has spent all day driving. He plans to landscape the garden with a model railway and deck chairs. "This will be a shrine to train spotters," he shouts over the 16:18 to Stoke-on-Trent.

Mr. Thorley spotted an entire line - called "classing the class" - by the age of eight. Like most spotters, he will travel far to "catch" a train he hasn't logged. Even off duty, he has trains on the brain. He says of a trip to Paris: "Floated on the Seine, read a rail magazine, loved the Gare du Nord." The average British family has about 1.8 chihdren. "But a spotter only manages 0.3 kids because there's always a few trains he has to run off and see," Mr. Thorley jokes. "Unless, of course, the wife comes along on an overnight sleeper to Scotland." The Thorleys' one child, a 20-year-old daughter, now is an apprentice train engineer.

Spotting began in Victorian times, but didn't take off until 1942, when a 20-year-old rail clerk named Ian Allan became weary of riders' constant queries about train types. He decided to list the railway's stock in a terse book called "ABC British Locomotives." Mr. Allan has sold 100 million copies of it and related texts.

"Quite by accident," says Mr. Allan, now a publishing magnate, "we provided all the information people needed to make a hobby out of watching trains go by." But even he is struck by its enduring appeal. "Steam locos were living things, but to look at today's trains... " He pauses. "I have to be careful because I'm talking about our customers."

'Hot and Steamy'

Indeed, spotting, a sport pursued by thousands, is big business. There are racks of rail magazines with centerfolds of rarely spotted trains, and shelves of books such as "Lesser Railways of the Yorkshire Dales." A phone service, "Traction Line," gives the latest information on sightings, repairs, derailments. Videos tempt spotters with "hot and steamy" footage of old lines. Bed and breakfast hotels even advertise: "very near central station and loco sheds."

To the uninitiated, it is arcane stuff. A typical spotter's manual is a numbing list of names and numbers: "47441 OC-Su NWRA" or "37/3 unrefurbished with regeared bogies." Some spotters now dictate sightings into pocket recorders and log each day's catch on computers. But such refinements only deepen the suspicion that train spotters have gone off the rails.

"They're puddled, barmy, six sandwiches short of a picnic," says Clapham Junction dispatcher, John Smith, reciting English slang for crazy. Nearby, a crowd waits for the 11:02 from Egham. "I've got better things to do with me time," he adds. "I'm into car stereos."

Some spotters pester workers for inside information. Others climb atop stations to view repair yards. This year, an overeager spotter - a trainee accountant - fell and died on the tracks in London. "I wonder if he got his number before the train got him," Mr. Smith says.

Newspapers lampoon spotters as dull-minded nerds who subsist on Spam sandwiches and who wear thick glasses, sandals with socks and orange slickers. But spotting apologists wonder what is so thrilling about other English passions, such as snooker, cricket and fishing. "Is going out on a foggy winter dawn, throwing a line in a pond and waiting for your worm to drown any less weird than spotting trains?" asks Bert Collins, who runs a rail bookshop in London.

Even so, some spotters are trying to, well, change their spots. As Adrian Hancock, a suit-clad personnel manager, says: "I'm really not a train spotter. I'm a rail enthusiast."

Asked what the difference is, he adds: "I'm interested in much more than the numbers." For instance, he photographs each train he logs and has 3,000 pictures so far. Soon, he will invite friends over for a slide show. "We'll get a few beers and sit all night, seeing those locos again," he says. "I can't wait"

Women Welcome

Spotters also welcome the few women now joining this once all-male fraternity. Alison Nix, a Midlands housewife, recently vacationed in southern England with her family, including one day in London. When they arrived at Clapham Junction,. Britain's busiest station, Ms. Nix stayed and logged trains all day - while the others went to Buckingham Palace and Harrods.

"I'd rather spot than shop," she says, inhaling diesel fumes on platform 11, an isthmus of asphalt poking into a tangle of tracks. "There's trains here I'll never catch at home."

Nearby, Mr. Gander, the mechanic, is unwrapping a Spam sandwich when the Orient Express appears. Its elegant Pullman sleepers are colored cream and chocolate and fitted with brass lamps, white tablecloths and polished teak. Mr. Gander glances at the engine number. "Got that one last year," he says.

Turning away, he spies a parcel train. "Head-turner on track 14!" he shouts.
"Class 47. Looks like a double-header,"
"Two locos?"
"UH-huh. 47102 and 47307."
"Wow. Haven't got either one."

Pens scribble, voices murmur into tape recorders and the Orient Express glides away unnoticed for the long ride south to Venice.

Comments welcome at info@davenportstation.org.uk